WALCOTT, N.D. — Many small-town cemeteries across North Dakota and Minnesota are trying to find ways to preserve the sacred sites that can date back as far as the late 1800s, with others adding veteran memorials to add an extra touch to their sites and honor the fallen troops.

One of those is a church cemetery open to all religions in the northern Richland County town of Walcott, where the congregation and other residents are aiming to restore its cemetery, which dates back to at least 1882.

The cemetery with 655 gravesites is also adding to its appearance by planning a memorial to honor the 51 military veterans buried there and those who will find a home there in future years.

The memorial, currently in its fundraising and fact-finding phase, has so far raised about $22,000 of the estimated $60,000 needed.

Cheryl Anderson, the chairwoman of the team working on the effort, said the restoration started this past summer after a meeting of the Shepherd of the Prairie Lutheran Church Council where members unanimously agreed something should be done with the cemetery.

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Little did they know what lied ahead.

Here's what  a gravestone belong to Erik Hanson looked like before it was cleaned and restored by the Monument Solutions company from Hickson, N.D.   Submitted photo / Cherie Mathison
Here's what a gravestone belong to Erik Hanson looked like before it was cleaned and restored by the Monument Solutions company from Hickson, N.D. Submitted photo / Cherie Mathison

One thing was certain, Anderson said, and that was they all agreed the restoration job "shouldn't be left to the next generation."

So Anderson and that core team of about five others with varied backgrounds agreed the south side or oldest part of the cemetery should be addressed first. They hired Rod and Cherie Mathison of the Monument Solutions cemetery restoration business in Hickson, N.D. with the help of a grant from the Lutheran Brotherhood.

For $14,000, the couple worked this year and found about 70 buried, partially covered or tipped gravestones or others in need of repair or cleaning. They also raised, straightened and re-leveled numerous tombstones of all sizes, sometimes replacing bases to the stones.

What has emerged is something the team working on the project is still amazed by.

The Mathisons said in an interview that they use a probing rod to find the buried headstones and often find others while fixing other stones nearby or by following a cemetery map or list.

"Every little cemetery has some needs," said Cherie Mathison about the various sites they have seen across the Red River Valley. Volunteers or hired sextons help in some cemeteries but their business in the past three years has worked on preserving about nine cemeteries.

"We try to make them look as new as possible," she said about the headstones. And the older late 1800s white Walcott gravestones are back to a brilliant color in a cleaning process that ends with rain providing the finishing touch to whiten them up.

The couple found about 10 completely covered headstones with some beneath about 4 inches of the sandy, soft soil and others lying on their sides.

So who were those forgotten souls?

Three of the headstones buried dated back to 1882. One was for a woman named Christie Oppen with the other two belonging to Albert and Peter Tollefson.

"We don't know anything about them," Anderson said about the early settlers.

These two headstones of brother and sister Alice and Nils Larson — dating back to 1909 — were found tipped and buried underneath the tree branches .  They were cleaned and tipped upright with new bases.   Barry Amundson / The Forum
These two headstones of brother and sister Alice and Nils Larson — dating back to 1909 — were found tipped and buried underneath the tree branches . They were cleaned and tipped upright with new bases. Barry Amundson / The Forum

Another two headstones were buried under the branches of a hackberry tree and tipped and belonged to a sister and brother — Alice and Nils Larson — dating back to 1905 and 1909. Nothing is known about that family either, and with no known descendants in the area, it's hard to find any connections.

The team's next plan is to move to the center area of the cemetery, where it's believed some of the same problems exist. They hope to hire the Mathisons again for that job at an estimated cost of about $22,000, hoping for grants or major gifts to help finance the second phase. The newer, northern part of the cemetery is in good condition.

While the restoration work was being done, team member Shelly Swandal put together a database on the computer of the 655 people thought to be buried there. Her project was helped by the recordkeeping of former sexton Darlan Fatland, who Anderson said has an "amazing memory and took meticulous records during his 45 years on the job."

Anderson and team member Greg Oestreich are the new sextons of the almost 140-year-old cemetery.

In the meantime, team members such as Lianne Rockstad have been traveling to other cemeteries across the region, including in Dent and Park Rapids in Minnesota and Kindred and Enderlin in North Dakota, to take photographs to see what they have developed for veteran memorials.

The photos and preliminary plans are on display in the church for members to look at and perhaps provide input on what they would like to see done. They hope to have a granite and steel memorial with benches and flags.

Already, the Walcott American Legion Post has donated $7,500 for the project.

The town has always had a special place for its veterans as each Memorial Day they have a town remembrance event at the cemetery with flags placed on all veteran graves and an honor guard performance followed by a meal in town.

At each burial for a veteran, the honor guard also takes part.

This headstone belongs to Thorvald "Toby" Rockstand who suffered in a German POW camp during World War II. It will be among the gravestones being restored at the Walcott Cemetery.   Barry Amundson / The Forum
This headstone belongs to Thorvald "Toby" Rockstand who suffered in a German POW camp during World War II. It will be among the gravestones being restored at the Walcott Cemetery. Barry Amundson / The Forum

Rockstad told the story of Thorvald "Toby" Rockstad, who was a World War II prisoner of war in Germany. After he returned to Walcott on a train, he had to be carried off because he was so diminished by his time in the detention camp.

Anderson said a Facebook page has been set up to continue fundraising for the memorial.

Also the group is aiming for a much larger perpetual care fund and has sent letters to about 450 descendants of those buried there for financial help.

Anderson said all of the work this fall has been "so rewarding."

To have so much support and gratitude from people has been so special, she said.

One thing that really hit her was a town resident who told her just this past year that he didn't know if he wanted to be buried at the cemetery because he wondered if anyone would continue to take care of it. He died of COVID just a few months later.

He has his answer now.